Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Movies: What's opera, D. Argento?

The standout image of Argento's Opera is a particularly nasty torture prop that is, perhaps, the most metaphorically freighted bit of slasher tech since Mark Lewis's camera in Peeping Tom. The image is so powerfully stark, S & M chic, and meta that it appears on nearly every poster and box cover for the flick. If you can't make it out in the image above, the brutally low-fi device works thusly: A piece of masking tape, on which the baddie places several needles, is placed under the eye; the result is that an attempt to close the eye results in the needles jabbing the upper eyelid. As the baddie informs his victim, any effort to close your eyes will result in shredding your eyelid.


(Actually, as shown, I'm pretty sure the device wouldn't work. Fitting it to the bottom eyelid would make the needles spread away from the eye. Fitting it right above the cheekbone makes the needles point toward the eye. This, admittedly, would suck, but it wouldn't jab your eyelids. Plant it on the cheekbone and you could blink without ever coming into contact with the needles. Still, in cinematic torture device design, as in gift giving, it is the thought that counts.)

Lest I be accused of making po-mo viewer-response hay out of this, Argento himself admits that this nastiness was inspired by his relationship to his audiences. Argento claims the idea came fairly late in the process of developing the flick. He was working on the film, knew there would be some over the top scenes, and thought that audience members would want to close their eyes at several points in the film. He imagined placing these needle-eye thingies on audience members to keep them looking. Sadly, the law prevented Argento from actually deploying this cinematic innovation and he was forced to settle for using the concept in a purely fictional context. How one suffers for one's art!

This seems to me to be a very European conceit about violently transgressive flicks and the audience for them. For reasons unclear to me, some Euro directors like to think of their films as endurance tests. Metaphorically, Argento wants to torture his audience. I'm reminded of French director Gaspar Noé, who has claimed that he's made films intended to be "universally despised." Noé, in his pandering art house pseudo-provocation Irréversible, actually included frequencies in the soundtrack meant to induce nausea in the audience. The conceit is that the Euro filmmakers are throwing these art bombs into the thick of bourgeois audiences. These thick head cattle-people will, of course, bellow out their rage at having their sensibilities offended. And the artist then takes this bellowing as proof that he's transcended the Victorian values that, somehow, are believed to still dominate society. The films are a test: if you can't take it, you must be some middle-class philistine who "just doesn't get it." Ultimately, this is, of course, a self-serving delusion. The audiences for these flicks want both the extreme horror and the sense that they've somehow transgressed. Like the directors who make them, the audiences for these films are self-selected viewers who want invest these brutal self-flagellations with a sense of intellectual and moral superiority. They've discovered sensations and meanings beyond the mental confines of the rubes that watch mainstream films. Like a whore hired to smack about her john a bit, these directors offer a sense of violation that is, in fact, simply part of transaction between to mutually serving parties. The people supposedly targeted by these flicks won't watch them. Some folks, I reckon, just won't pay to be abused.

The irony is that I too take the needle to the eye trap as a metaphor for Argento's relationship to the audience. Only, for me, I see it as a curiously apt metaphor for why I keep returning to Argento's flicks when he's been so damningly mediocre so many times. As regular readers know, I feel that Argento flirts dangerously with the not-so-coveted title of "Most Overrated Horror Director." Though there are many folks out there with a far greater knowledge of his work than I, what I've seen is wildly uneven in quality. His love of creating visual effects and his almost stubborn refusal to yield anything to cohesive narrative puts Argento into this place where he's either got to wow you with stylish filmmaking or you immediately notice that the whole flick is a shambling mess. By my reckoning, Argento is operating at a 50% wow-rate.

Fortunately, Opera is in the happy-half of that output. The flick follows a young understudy, prosaically named Betty, who is suddenly thrust into the limelight when the diva of a production of Verdi's Macbeth is injured in an auto accident. The new-found fame comes with a big downside: a murderous stalker with a mysterious connection to the young singer's past. As the stalker's deranged obsession intensifies, he begins bumping off the people close to Betty. In the overly elaborate manner of all filmic serial killers, the stalker like to tie Betty up, apply the previously mentioned eye-needle thingy, and force Betty to watch the deaths of her friends and coworkers. The police prove useless and it is up to Betty and the opera's director – a former horror film director turned stager of operas (a nod to an autobiographical "what if?": Argento almost mounted an opera himself, but the deal fell through) – to uncover and thwart the rampaging psycho. The "mystery" un-unfolds in a typically Argentine manner, which is to say that clues appear and disappear with connection or explanation, nobody does much in the way of actual investigating, and, when enough bodies pile up, the killer reveals all in a ten-second bit of exposition that doesn't make all that much sense.

The make or break in an Argento flick is the look, and Opera has Argento's stylishly overripe fingerprints all over it. The camera swoops, cranes, and twists throughout the flick. Argento punctuates scene with cut shots of characters internal organs – rapidly beating hearts, blood pulsing through veins, and literally thumping brains. Curiously, Argento seems to be under the misconception that the brain, like the heart, beats. Scenes are washed in blues, red, and greens. The sets are lavish. Most of the film takes place in a truly astounding opera house, played by the Parma theater in Italy, and the fashionably appointed and dubiously large apartment of the understudy. (There is, of course, a street shot in which Betty, having survived her first attack, runs through the rain. When in trouble, Argento's women never call the cops or run to a friend's house. They prefer to run through rain-soaked streets until help or more danger finds them.) And the single image of Betty's eye, hungry needles waiting for her to blink, is a mind-haunting image. The soundtrack, while it includes some of the obligatory embarrassing cheese metal, also includes some work from Brian Eno and some interesting scoring by long-time Argento collaborator Claudio Simonetti, former keyboard player for the prog-rock band Goblin. Though not quite as overwhelming as Susperia, Opera is a full offering of Argento's opulently cool filmmaking.

This is a flick for fans of Argento (even fence-sitters like myself), especially his more giallo-centric efforts, to which Opera is an overt throwback. It has all the standard flaws that Argento has, through force of repetition, turned into something like idiosyncratic genre markers. If his lack of narrative logic, disdain for characterization, and soft spot for really bad heavy metal turn you off, you won't find him suddenly reformed here. However, if you dig on his mannered and strangely beautiful approach to horror, Opera's got a lot to like.


Anonymous said...

Do you think a Clockwork Orange type treatment of his own movies would change the director's behavior ?

CRwM said...

I don't think so. I reckon D'Argento's occasionally bizarro technique is not the product of ignorance or laziness, but rather artistic indifference to a couple of components that others might consider essential - like narrative logic or characterization. What's weird about them is that he not attacking those conventions. This isn't an anti-narrative statement the way, say, Un Chien Andalou is or an assault on our standard notions of characterization, a la Palindromes or I'm Not There. It's more like he just shrugs his shoulders and makes the flick he's got in his head anyway. He'd be some weird filmic primitive if he wasn't so clearly proficient in his technique.

I'm getting tongue tied here. I guess, though, that's part of the allure - the reason I keep watching his stuff even though I find half of it disappointing. He's curiously interesting regardless of the result.